OTHER DESERT CITIESBy Jon Robin Baitz
Director – Steven Pounders
Set Designer – Clare Floyd DeVries
Props Design – Kyle Montgomery
Lighting Designer – John Leach
Sound Design – David H.M. Lambert
Costume Design – Sylvia Fuhrken
Stage Manager – Megan Beddingfield
Jeff Burleson – Trip Wyeth
Connie Coit – Polly Wyeth
John S. Davies – Lyman Wyeth
Cindee Mayfield – Silda Grauman
Dana Schultes – Brooke Wyeth
Reviewed Performance: 10/24/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Spin is part of daily life as we all put the best possible explanation on our life choices, especially within families, where stories can have different versions depending on who tells it. When spin involves covering family secrets, it’s often destructive.
Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz is about spinning a dark family secret. The 2011 play opened at Circle Theatre in Sundance Square tonight. You could say it was a transfer of a well-received 2013 production at Theatre Three in Dallas. The Circle production retains all the actors from that 2013 run, except the role of Brooke Wyeth. Jac Alder directed Theatre Three’s production and Circle’s production and every actor bio is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Jac, long-time icon of theater in DFW. I think Jac must be smiling about the Circle production tonight.
Other Desert Cities at Circle was directed by Steven Pounders. The theater space at Circle is dramatically different from Theatre Three’s theater-in-the-round, so this production took a different approach to the design. Claire Floyd DeVries used Circle’s thrust stage to build an up-scale Palm Springs flat, with carpeted and brick tiled flooring. A distant mountain range appeared out the back glass sliding door. A small corner brick fireplace and a book case filled with books framed the back wall. Acting space was created behind the back wall, both outside the sliding door and into another hallway. Small frame pictures sit on a table against the back wall, including some headshots of a bygone era. A small bar sat in one front corner and sofas and cushy chairs, a settee, even a small Christmas tree, gave this set the exact look of houses I’ve seen there. The set was decorated and filled with small household items by Props Designer, Kyle Montgomery, and there were too many to mention, but suffice to say the house had that clean, but lived-in look.
With bright lighting by John Leach covering the stage, the standout effects were the bluish-greyish sky hues outside that sliding door. That lush blue had a real comfort feeling. I think the overall effect on the set was a high-desert in winter, realistic of course.
I didn’t hear any notable sound effects, so the sound show seemed simple, but David Lambert’s designs always include interesting musical choices for scene changes and bows. In this case I identified music from George Winston’s Night album, quite beautiful. This music set an aural tone that gave an overall atmosphere for the story. Lambert’s designs are usually understated, but he always challenges my assumptions about how music can be used and I always get ideas for my own collection.
Costumes were designed by Sylvia Furhken to be realistic along with the set. From the tennis outfits that opened the show to formal wear at home for the Conservative elder Wyeths, to the slouchy New York shorts and pullovers for Brooke and California chic for Trip, the designs were about as you’d see them anywhere today. But Silda’s wardrobe of silk caftans in outlandish print colors put this character’s persona in full view. In all cases, clothing became subtext for the characters, though realistic enough we stopped noticing.
Other Desert Cities is set in the home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth, staunch Republicans and supporters of Ron and Nancy Reagan. Brooke, their daughter is visiting for Christmas, along with Trip, her brother who’s visiting from LA. Brooke has written a memoir that opens old wounds and family reactions reveal sides to the characters who have managed to spend years spinning their stories about them.
The Circle production retained the services of four of the five actors from Theatre Three’s show. I’m not sure if this would be seen by Director Pounders as a blessing or a challenge, as it meant integrating a new actor into the established ensemble, but I suspect with this group, it was a fairly easy job.
The new actor for Circle’s production was Dana Schultes, noted Stage West actor and director, who created the role of Brook Wyeth. Her work in Stage West and Water Tower productions has thrilled audiences with her professional acting chops. This role may be her finest hour. Brook Wyeth is a New York writer, very liberal, who’s recovering from depression, and who writes a book to deal with demons from her early life. It’s a difficult task to describe the techniques Schultes may have used to play Brooke, in a way similar to describing how Meryl Streep finds magic in her characters. It’s there, you see it, but it’s hard to say how it’s done. Brooke has an arc that looks like a rollercoaster. She enters with high hopes of getting blessings for her manuscript, yet she’s scared enough she doesn’t want to reveal it yet. Schultes puts Brooke on a see-saw from the first moment. We see Brooke teetering there throughout the story, never fully grounded, and searching for something. This makes her appear to be on the edge of falling, a character we sympathize and identify with as an audience. Schultes bought into the beliefs of her character so fully we immediately joined her in Brooke’s quest. In time resistance gets a little violent towards Brooke and we felt her vulnerability as Schultes opened herself to the fearful thoughts of Brooke. Yet there was an undercurrent of love for all these characters that we saw in Schultes that allowed us to accept that this wasn’t extreme dysfunction, rather the normal dysfunction most of us can recognize.
There’s something else in Schultes’ portrayal that demands mention. In Brooke, Schultes made every word Brooke utters seem like she made it up at that moment. That’s a holy grail for actors, a goal to seem fresh, new and spontaneous, especially in dramatic realism. In every interaction, Schultes reacted to her partner’s lines as if it was the first time she ever heard them. The effect was that Brooke seemed to spring from moments she experienced, rather than from a script. This is exciting to students of acting. I recommend any actor should see this show, if for no other reason, to watch her performance.
But it’s also a great story and the rest of the characters play their roles exceptionally well.
Jeff Burleson played Trip. As the younger brother, who was too young to remember events of their lives, he adores Brooke, and Burleson revealed this level of love even through his oft cynical world view. But Trip is distant enough to inject sanity into the crisis. His bent for humor to cover pain meant he acts some of the best comedic moments and Burleson played those honestly, without forcing comedy, and with great timing. Burleson has a physical style that makes him interesting to watch as he weaves around furniture like a younger guy who’s comfortable in his space might, especially one who lives the LA laid-back lifestyle. Trip has some secrets of his own that come out as he confronts Brooke and Burleson’s comfort in showing Trip’s loving relationship with Brooke makes his confrontations more sympathetic, like mentorship rather than argument. Vocal inflections in Burleson’s line delivery, especially in his interactions with Schultes, showed a California language style and a dynamic range that makes Trip, well, a fun trip.
John Davies played Lyman Wyeth, former actor who turned to politics, like his idol, Ron Reagan. Davies has a commanding presence on stage and this translated to his clear head-of-the family role. He looked and radiated the confidence and toughness a former Ambassador would have, especially in a Republican administration. But Brooke’s book has an effect on his emotional state and Davies created a slowly spiraling dive into the deep, which we learned had to do with that secret. So we saw a man who loves his daughter and tries to walk a line between supporting her while throttling her dream. Davies made this struggle look like an internal titanic battle, so familiar to the older parents among us.
Polly Wyeth is Lyman’s politically supportive Republican wife, played by Connie Coit. Polly is matriarch and, in many ways, it’s clear she wears the pants in the family, though she deftly gives way to Lyman in the proper moments. Polly, maybe more than any other, objects to her daughter’s writing, labeling it destructive even before reading it. Coit, a small woman by comparison, makes Polly seem much larger, more powerful, and more forceful in her dealings with everyone. She also commands the stage with a presence that at once holds your eyes and makes you want to avoid looking at her. Coit showed pain that was tearing Polly up inside, even as she moved and spoke with an unyielding toughness, even threatening Brooke with expulsion from the family. And yet there was an understated vulnerability in Coit that hinted at some underlying motivation for Polly.
Cindee Mayfield created the quirky role of Silda Grauman, Polly’s addict sister who lives there during her recovery. Mayfield shows us the constant struggle of alcoholics as she lives around it people who drink, though she knows she has to avoid it. That in itself is a great job of acting, as the struggle is one of trying to live a normal life around others, while knowing they’re not. As is sometimes true of alcoholics, Silda’s comments about the family conflict provide a few of the best comic lines, which in a show this intense is important to provide breathing room for an audience. Mayfield yielded these rapid-fire comments with conviction and the timing of a comic master. Her tall, lanky figure wrapped in floor-length caftans in artsy colors, helped sell her has a comic. Yet Silda has her secrets and reasons to push the publication of Brooke’s book, and in revealing these, Mayfield showed a mastery of playing a dark subtext that drove all that humor. Through Mayfield, Silda became a marvelously complex character.
Director Steven Pounders writes in his program Director’s Notes, “The Wyeths’ story is powerful as a family drama, but you may find that it also evokes the deep political and social polarization in our nation….” That’s true as we saw positions being taken and held and actions twisting between liberals and conservatives and that parallel the last ten years of our national politics. The parallel is palpable and ever-present. But this story is about family and most every audience member can find parallels either experienced in their lives or seen in others. The message is about the deadly effects of family secrets. It’s hard to get away from that to enjoy the larger, more global, themes.
The play has comic moments, but it’s an intense experience of family drama that gets uncomfortable at times. I found myself wanting to throttle Polly many times, about how I feel watching political debates, but then I wanted to embrace her as mom at others. There’s good and bad and terribly sad, and eventually it becomes a little bit triumphant. It is a mature subject that takes some maturity to understand. It’s a bit like reading Tolstoy rather than Dr. Seuss, but you’ll know you’ve been given something to chew. It also has so many complex levels, it took Steven Pounders and this cast of talented actors to tie those levels together into a great story. Christmas time is coming, along with all the Christmas shows, but get over to Circle Theatre to see Other Desert Cities.
Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th Street, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through November 21st
Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm.; Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm. Tickets for Thursday evening and Matinees are $20-$30. Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $25-$35.
For information and tickets, visit http://www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040.